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A detail from a Tory attack ad released Jan. 27, 2010.
A detail from a Tory attack ad released Jan. 27, 2010.

Earlier discussion

Jeffrey Simpson on attack ads in Canadian politics Add to ...

Why do Canadians have to suffer through political attack ads? Because "as long as they work, parties will use them, the only difference today being that the Harper party deploys more of them than any party in Canadian history," national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes in his latest column. The ads are targeted at party supporters for fundraising purposes, he writes, as well as at "what we might pejoratively call the ill-informed and uninterested. These are voters who do not follow politics at all, do not track issues, are aware only in the vaguest way of what governments do."

Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Simpson took reader questions about this topic online. An excerpt from the transcript follows; scroll down to read the full discussion.

Guy Nicholson: Jeffrey, you argue that attack ads, while demeaning our politics, continue to be used because they work. Is there a realistic way for a Canadian political party to run an effective modern campaign without such ads?

Jeffrey Simpson: Of course there is, but it would require a kind of mutual agreement among parties. And by the way, the distinction I'm making, or tried to make in my column, is between ads directed at the personality and background of the leaders, and differences over policy.

Bob Miller: We really should not need legislation to keep the legislators on the right track, but maybe that is the only thing that will work. Do you think legislation should be proposed to address this issue, and can it be effective?

Jeffrey Simpson: Okay, we'll appoint you and a few others to decide what should be deemed an "attack ad" and what should not. Negative criticism is part of democratic debate. You think your policies or position is better than the other party's, so you explain why by in part criticising your adversaries. The distinction I make is when you impugn motives and distort the background of the leaders or candidates. The best way for people to get rid of personalized attack ads is to vote against the party that uses them, but alas there is much political science data that suggests that they work for certain parts of the electorate. Put simply: the less informed you are; the more you are likely to be influenced by them.

Gary: Is it a workable proposition to drastically reduce campaign spending limits? Down to a modest enough level that could eliminate the possibility of TV ads? In the form those ads take today (pure voter manipulation), there's really no positive reason for them to continue. Issues cannot be discussed in a 30-second spot. This would also force parties to rely more heavily on connecting face-to-face with voters which should be a good thing.

Jeffrey Simpson: Most advertising is manipulative; that''s what advertising at least in part is designed to accomplish; to move your emotions, impulses and thinking. Political ads are no different. On your last point, parties connect face-to-face with voters much, much less than when I began in this business, partly because it is hard to get people to volunteer for partisan work. The old door-to-door canvass, for example, is a shadow of what it was three decades ago. This campaign, when it comes, will feature what is called social media as never before, and precise media targeting.

Brent: I just have a problem with Canadians attacking each other on patriotic grounds, instead of tackling the issues that face us all on a daily basis. Talk about infrastructure, or taxes, or getting Canadians out of food bank, or a better economy.

Jeffrey Simpson: I agree with you, what more can I say, and I am naive enough to believe that there are many who agree with you. Just now, as I reply to you, I am listening with one ear to Question Period: disgusting in every respect, with charges about misconduct flying across the aisle. No wonder Canadians are largely disgusted with all politicians.

Tom D: The Conservatives have an aggressive and successful fundraising campaign. Given the wellspring of animosity directed towards the 'Harper Government' why have the Liberals not tapped into this to provide funding for out-of-election campaign spending, as have the Tories?

Jeffrey Simpson: You have asked a question hat perplexes Liberals. You have to admire what the Conservatives have done: they have superb software to identify and follow up with donors; that have learned how to push the buttons that cause supporters to each for their wallets. There is an angry right in Canada that can be aroused rather easily, and the Conservatives have them lock, stock and barrel. The Liberals used to rely much more on corporate contributions, and these are now forbidden. So the Liberals have just not caught up in metholodgy and messaging, and Liberals, as centrists mostly, seldom display that abiding anger that right-wing conservatives do on a range of issues. At least that is my judgment having been around for a while.

Kristina: How about running "attack" ads on the issues, rather than on the only thing Harper continues to harass Ignatieff about - that Ignatieff is brilliant and accepted a professorship at Harvard. Why is the public so easily manipulated to think that this is a good enough reason not to elect Ignatieff?

Jeffrey Simpson: Kristina: I didn't know Ignatieff in his years before public life, except to have said hello to him once or twice in London. But I did read a fair bit of what he wrote over the years while in the U.K. and the U.S. -- books, essays, magazine articles. I also used to see him on the BBC. His contributions were always of a high quality. After all, you don't get to be a regular, serious commentator on the BBC as a "colonial" unless you are first rate. The same goes for being selected to run the Carr Centre at Harvard. These were among his many singular accomplishments. It another question whether a mind and a character formed by those sorts of intellectual endeavors is the kind ready for being prime minister. It used to be said by those who knew little about both men that he was Trudeau Redux. Wrong. Trudeau's writings were invariably those of a pamphleteer in the French sense of an intellectual engage. He used words to win arguments and batter opponents. Ignatieff tended to write "in the round," to look at matters much more coolly. Trudeau was much better able to use his old pamphleteering skills in politics than Ignatieff with his more founded approach.

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